What Should I Leave In and What Should I Leave Out?

Dear ‘Lena,

I’m confused. My writing teacher gave me the feedback that I should make my writing “more detailed,” but then I added in a lot of details and she said that it was crammed with “unnecessary detail.” Help! – Flustered

Dear Flustered,

I can tell you about one sort of detail that always earns its keep: a character-building detail. Beginning writers don’t always realize how much a single detail—like what kind of sandwich they pick—can say about a person. Think of Harriet the Spy’s tomato sandwich (the same one every day without fail) or the comforting Swiss cheese and malted milk Holden Caulfield orders after a terrible date.

A student of mine once wrote a piece about a woman doing a nighttime stakeout. She sits in her parked car with “coffee and sandwiches.” So generic. I asked my student to tell me all about her. Then I said: “So what would this woman pack herself to eat?” Without hesitation, he replied, “a foldover”: one slice in bread folded in half around the filling. Now, with a single detail, we start to know her. She has simple tastes (she grew up in the rural Midwest). She was in a hurry when she got ready. And maybe this simple snack is something she made to comfort herself—she’s nervous. Now that foldover is even creating suspense: what’s she nervous about?

The detail in question doesn’t have to be a sandwich. It could be your character’s boots or the inside of their car or even the way they blow their nose. Think of the difference between dabbing with a lace hanky and closing one nostril with a finger and doing a “farmer’s blow” into a ditch.

Don’t be hyper-specific about everything. That would slow your story down. Just pick a few good details to focus on. Bonus: with these details working for you, you can now skip that boring paragraph where you introduce your character and tell us all about him/her, including information about their age and hair color.

That characterizing detail is especially important early on, when you’re trying to pique your reader’s interest. That’s why, when I introduce people at a party or whatever, I don’t say “You both went to law school.” I offer a detail, like “Mikayla always knows where the best food trucks are.” In stories, as in life, the kind of sandwich someone likes is way more interesting than the information on their driver’s license.

This doesn’t really answer your bigger question, which amounts to “What should I leave in and what should I leave out?” I’m afraid it takes years of practice and many drafts to figure that one out. But in the meantime: use your sandwich.

Warmly,

‘Lena

1 thought on “What Should I Leave In and What Should I Leave Out?”

  1. Dear ‘Lena and Flustered,
    Thank you so much for the question and the advice. It has helped me figure out what details to include. I’m in the process of editing my manuscript and now I have some criteria by which to decide whether or not a detail helps or just adds bulk. I found that I often gave multiple descriptions of the same characteristic, like hair and eye color. Now, I describe that once and add more interesting details, like how they stuff their hands in their pockets after a brief handshake. I feel I’m now on the right track.

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